The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement today, urging fans of both the best-selling novel and the new movie The Help to reconsider the popular tale of African American maids in 1960s Jackson, Miss., who risk sharing their experiences with a young white journalist. “Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers,” the statement read.
The group of scholars took issue with novelist Kathryn Stockett’s use of “black” dialect, her nearly uniform portrayal of black men as cruel or absent, and the lack of attention paid to the sexual harassment that many black women endured in their white employers’ homes. “The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.” They further made clear that while they may disapprove of The Help as storytelling, they very much admire and respect the “stellar performances” of the movie’s black actresses like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.
In EW’s cover story on the film, Davis (who plays Aibileen, the first maid to talk frankly with the white journalist, played by Emma Stone) acknowledged the charged conversations that were sure to accompany the film’s release. She says she too approached the novel with enormous suspicion, “because a white woman was writing what I felt was our story, and once again she’s going to get it wrong and she’s only going to skim the surface,” she said. Yet the story, and what she calls the deep humanity of the characters, won her over. “That’s what people bristle at: the maids,” she says. “I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.”
The ABWH statement takes the film to task for seeming to suggest that after the assassination of Civil Rights pioneer Medgar Evers, the sole response of the black community was to quake in fear and anxiety. But it should be noted that at a recent special screening hosted by the NAACP, his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, bestowed upon The Help her most passionate blessing.